Hidden Order

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Hidden Order

Postby blairfix » Sun Sep 11, 2016 1:30 pm

So today I was supposed to do my family's finances ... a boring task full of data entry. But the scientist in me thought of a question that was more interesting: is there an underlying pattern to the way we spend money?

Well, apparently there is. The following chart plots the distribution of log(expenses) over the last 7 years (take the logarithm of each expense, and plot the resulting distribution). Our spending behaviour follows a lognormal distribution.

Rplot.jpeg
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I find this result both beautiful and unsettling. It is beautiful in a scientific sense --- our behavior has an underlying order for which we are completely unaware. It is also unsettling for the same reason -- our behavior has an underlying order for which we are completely unaware.

An explanation of this expense distribution would need two parts (1) It would need to explain why we buy the things we do; (2) it would need to explain the prices of the things we buy. While economics has grappled with these questions for a long time, it has mainly put forward circular arguments: both prices and consumer preferences are explained in terms of utility. While this approach presumes to explain prices and spending behaviour, it makes no useful predictions.
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Re: Hidden Order

Postby jmc » Mon Sep 12, 2016 1:11 pm

Interesting, as always, Blair! I was going to ask a small mathematical question, but I answered it while writing this post. The x-axis suggests that there are negative values in the distribution. This is possible when one calculates the log of a number between 0 and 1. Thus, on a rare occasion will Blair's family buy candy, gum and the like....(assuming that food inflation has not yet gotten to the sweets).
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Re: Hidden Order

Postby DT Cochrane » Tue Sep 13, 2016 5:03 am

First, I have to say, I'm not surprised by this. It makes sense to me that most of our purchases would take place in the middle of a distribution of expenses. I think this could be readily described through empirical research without recourse to any 'hidden order.'

Second, ontologically, I reject the idea of a 'hidden order.' At least, I reject it depending on what we mean by that. If we mean there is some force beyond our access that orders our lives, that I reject. If we mean there is a mechanism we have yet to discover, that I can accept, since it remains entirely within the actual. As philosophical short-hand, I think of this as rejecting - as Einstein did - 'spooky action at a distance.' For anything to have affect, it must have a vehicle for rendering difference.

Finally, all that said, I do think this is nonetheless an interesting mapping, Blair. I've written elsewhere - in response to a question raised by Bob Jessop - that differential accumulation does not explain, rather it highlights what needs to be explained. Similarly, I think this draws our attention to a distribution deserving of our attention.
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Re: Hidden Order

Postby YGodler » Tue Sep 13, 2016 6:02 am

Hi there Troy,

Could you elaborate a little on why you reject the idea that there are some forces "beyond our access that order[s] our lives".

It seems that by access you mean cognitive or epistemological access. In other words, it seems as if you believe that there cannot exist forces of which we are unaware. But that plainly isn't true, given the existence of unconscious mental processes and concealed power mechanisms.

Of course you could argue that you might classify these as mechanisms "we have yet to discover", but that does not make them any less hidden.

In fact, the reference to "spooky action at a distance" leads me to a different conclusion than the one implied by your rejection of a 'hidden order'. It reminds me of an important recognition in the early post-Newtonian period that some forces are not simply inaccessible, but even unintelligible for humans (Recall Hume's commentary on Newton's discovery).

On the other hand, if by "our access" you mean our ability to control natural or social forces, you also run into a problem. Simply because there are plenty of forces which are either beyond our immediate control (e.g. the decisions of authoritarian rulers) or beyond our control in principle (e.g. natural law).

Best,
Yigal
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Re: Hidden Order

Postby DT Cochrane » Tue Sep 13, 2016 12:28 pm

Yigal,
I mean forever beyond our access. I mean inaccessible as a fact of their existence. Of course there are things we do not know and things we do not know of. But, anything that has affect - the capacity to affect and be affected - relies on some kind of vehicle to render that affect. It has to bridge the gap between wherever it is and wherever we are.

My ontological position is a rejection of naive structuralism for which structures, there, there and everywhere, determine our life. Lazy talk of 'social forces' I find particularly problematic. We can devise abstractions to agglomerate numerous processes that can then be used to map those processes and advance our understanding. As an example, base and superstructure are concepts that abstract across an incredible diversity of actually existing entities. But, we should keep our concepts in their place. Unfortunately, social theorists have a bad habit of confusing creation with discovery.
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Re: Hidden Order

Postby YGodler » Tue Sep 13, 2016 2:08 pm

Troy,
Why shouldn't there be something that is forever beyond our access? I assume you are familiar with Chomsky's distinction between problems and mysteries. The latter refer precisely to what is unintelligible in principle, because it falls outside the scope of human cognitive capacity (assuming we are organic creatures and not angels, as Chomsky puts it). Of course, it's an empirical question what is a problem and what is a mystery, but it seems like some major prejudging is involved in asserting that nothing falls outside the scope of human cognitive capacity.
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Re: Hidden Order

Postby blairfix » Tue Sep 13, 2016 8:41 pm

Troy writes:

First, I have to say, I'm not surprised by this. It makes sense to me that most of our purchases would take place in the middle of a distribution of expenses.


It is important to note that it is the logarithm of expenses that is normally distributed (i.e. has a visible central tendency). The expenses themselves are very skewed when plotted on a regular axis:

Rplot01.jpeg
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A note on "hidden order". I didn't mean this in any profound sense ... just that there was an "order" that existed to my family's behaviour that was hidden until I did the analysis. I had no conscious awareness of this pattern. Of course, this is why we have science, and empirical analysis. In this case, it was a bit weird because I was both the scientist and the study subject.
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Re: Hidden Order

Postby DT Cochrane » Wed Sep 14, 2016 7:15 am

Yigal,
I'm actually not aware of that distinction by Chomsky.

I encountered something similar in the writings of Graham Harman, one of the thinkers driving so-called 'object oriented ontology.' Although he supports relational ontology that centres being around external relations, he tries to square that with a claim - quite familiar in Western philosophy, in various guises - that every entity has something ineffable that will forever retreat from us.

Like Laplace said, when asked by Napoleon where God was in his theory, I have no need of that hypothesis. If there is something completely inaccessible to us, then I'm unconcerned with it. That is not to say there are not mechanisms that knowledge of which defy our current knowledge, technology, conceptualization. My ontology is an exceedingly empirical one. It acknowledges black boxes, but only ones that are not yet opened.

Blair, yes, my mistake. Thank you for the clarification.

Can I also say the detail of your budgeting is impressive and perhaps a tad worrisome ;)
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Re: Hidden Order

Postby YGodler » Wed Sep 14, 2016 7:51 am

Troy,
You write "If there is something completely inaccessible to us, then I'm unconcerned with it" and that "My ontology is an exceedingly empirical one".

However, the question of the precise scope of human cognitive capacity is an empirical question. It is empirical in two senses. It is empirical insofar as it asks about the precise scope of human cognitive capacity (in a way that may be answered, perhaps, by a cognitive scientist). And it is empirical in seeking to identify phenomena which are unintelligible in principle (something to be answered, perhaps, by a historian of science). I do not see these questions as inevitably leading us into the realm of mysticism.

Indeed, Chomsky even provides (admittedly rough) answers to these questions. Thus, he observes that science is able to devise theories to deal with strict determinacy and randomness, but seems powerless vis-a-vis phenomena which obey neither strict determinacy nor randomness, such as the phenomenon of choice, which is neither determined nor random. However, as social scientists we are certainly not "unconcerned" with choice, even though it is unintelligible in Chomsky's sense.
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Re: Hidden Order

Postby DT Cochrane » Wed Sep 14, 2016 10:25 am

Yigal,
I'm not sure I understand how what you've written connects to our conversation to this point. I don't think we actually disagree that much.

I agree that science can locate patterns and regularities that can be used to locate new phenomenal agents. At its best, as scientific practices locate new phenomena, it develops new concepts to help make sense of them, which Bohr-Barad would describe as making an 'agential cut.' Then, ideally, this conceptual development will feed back into our metaphysics - which is what Karen Barad does in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway. Nowhere in this do I find a place to postulating ordering forces that must necessarily remain, forever and ever, inaccessible to us.
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